New mental health project enhances barbers’ listening skills

Barber and beauty shops historically have been de facto listening places for the Black community. Whether male or female, barbers and stylists provide a welcoming ear for the sitting client to discuss virtually everything that is happening in their lives.

Kente Circle, a mental health agency located in South Minneapolis since 2004, and UCare, the statewide nonprofit healthcare organization, has joined with The Confess Project, which has trained over 1,300 barbers to be mental health advocates in over 46 U.S. cities.

The initiative aims to help “heal the pain and make it okay to discuss mental health issues with trusted barbers and stylists” and expand its nationwide mental health barbershop movement for Blacks.  

Since 2016, the Confess Project has been providing barbers and stylists of color with mental health training. “I got introduced to the Confess Project early on,” said CEO Dontay Williams last Monday during a three-hour training at Sabathani Community Center. 

He told the MSR that the still-existing pandemic has affected “every facet of American [life], particularly within the Black community. It has, I believe, heightened the sense of anxiety, of fear and depression and anger,” noted Williams.

Mental health remains a taboo subject for many Blacks. This is where barbers and stylists come in, said Larry Tucker, Kente Circle founder-director. During his opening remarks, he told stylists in attendance, “You all hold some really key roles in this community, in lots of communities around the country.  I’m excited about today, but I’m also excited about what’s going to happen after today.

“After today,” Tucker continued, “folks are coming to your hair shops and they’re having concerns about mental health [and] chemical health. We’re going to be hopefully forming some kind of a support group for folks.”

Speaking earlier in an MSR phone interview, Tucker pointed out, “We know that not everybody is going to be able to come to therapy. Therapy is not a good fit for everyone. The folks at UCare have this idea of teaming up with barbers…and training them with basic mental health [principles]. I thought that was brilliant.”

UCare VP of Mental Health Jennifer Garber, on the same call, added, “I checked with Larry about it, if he would like to be involved. The barber shop is such a trusted space for communities of color. It’s also true that communities of color have lots of reasons not to trust the healthcare system.

“So, trying to figure out a way to support people’s mental health and good chemical health habits in a way and in a place that they feel safe…a place that they can trust the person that they’re talking to,” said Garber. “We just wanted them to be better prepared to know about the kind of skills that they can use, what they’re listening for, and then to have some resources in place.”

(l-r) Hans Lewis Jr. & Boss Flinte, Confess Project ambassadors /Photo by Steve Floyd

Williams told the MSR that the Confess Project’s training focuses on four main areas: active listening, positive communication, validation, and stigma reduction—“the skill sets and the tools to recognize mental illness,” he stressed.

Reginald Rodgers, a local barber, told the MSR that he came to last week’s training at Sabathini because it was “organized by people of color for people of color.”

“You build a rapport with your clients,” stated Christina Johnson, a 30-year veteran stylist.  “They don’t really tell their story until it’s their time to get in the chairs.”

“We already have candid conversations in our environment,” added George Stewart of Robbinsdale when asked if becoming a mental health advocate might be burdensome in his daily work. “I’m not concerned about that at all,” he said

Before she welcomed the participants, Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins told the MSR: “Addressing our mental health issues is a part of self-care.” She supports the new program, calling it “a natural fit for those service providers in our community to help people.” 

Tucker, Garber and Williams all stressed that last week’s training is not a one-off event. “We’ve committed ourselves not only to just training, but also to be of service,” said the Confess Project CEO.